Welcome to Eight Steps Forward, our unique Year in Review series that looks at specific games from 2012 that were touchstone moments of growth within the medium. The eight games featured in this series are progressive in genre, design, gameplay, and narrative. Spoilers will abound.
Reality, in my estimation, is the unadulterated truth of the human experience, and Papo & Yo is the closest we have ever come to experiencing that truth in a video game.
The term “realism” has become a measuring stick for quality in video games. In wide-open video game worlds, the smoothness of flowing water is a metric by which we judge the competency of a programmer tasked with creating nature. If a digital gunshot is a clack and not a boom, it is accurate. If one of those gunshots sends a bullet into brick, and the brick shatters, it is authentic.
Seemingly, with each new video game created to imitate life, the repertoire of “realistic” devices grows broader. Digital alcohol has profound new effects on its consumer. Programmed smiles wrinkle the faces of character models.
However, these instances of so-called realism are merely virtuosic recitals of physics. They are simulations: virtual representations of the real world, not the human experience. Video games have a knowledge of life that’s fifty feet wide and an inch deep, and as a result, there are very few examples of a story placing hands on a character, churning the character into something maleable, and releasing it, reshaped, into the world. There are even fewer examples of video games being used to articulate the experience of being another – to create empathy and understanding, to churn us and reshape us.
Set in a Colombian favela, Papo & Yo follows a young boy named Quico as he takes off on a fantasy-adventure with his friend Monster, a lethargic, hulking creature with a curious appetite for poisonous frogs. The two are searching for a distant place where Monster can cure his appetite for frogs. When there are no frogs around, Monster sleeps. Quico’s imagination runs wild. He dreams of being powerful. He rearranges his city like it’s made of building blocks.
When Monster senses a frog, he chases it down and eats it. Then, emblazoned with fire, he beats Quico with startling violence.
In truth, Papo & Yo isn’t a fantasy. It is a memoir, drawn from a cabinet of painful memories belonging to Minority Media’s creative director, Vander Caballero. He spent his childhood growing up in the shanties of Bogota with an abusive, alcoholic father. This rehashing of memories is Caballero’s way of coming to terms with his past.
There’s a moment at the end of the game where Quico is standing on a platform above Monster. The two are separate, high above the city, and Monster can be seen lunging around down below. Beyond and beneath him, the shanties are distant, layered in an ethereal mist. It is the first time Quico sees Monster unconfined by the thin alleys of the favela, and the immediacy of their journey is paused.
Up until this point, Quico had been dependent on Monster. He could run from Monster when Monster was angry. But he could only go a few feet in any direction, usually just far enough to let Monster calm down, before he slowly approached the beast again and they continued. Then, the two could work together to press onward.
On that platform, Monster is framed by world around him. He’s been put in perspective. Quico watches, this new perspective allowing him to see Monster being ravenously consumed by addiction, and the world around Monster consumed by his destruction.
Quico needed his father, but that need was killing him. His father needed a bottle, but that need was killing both of them.
Then Quico realized he needed to let his father go.
Papo & Yo doesn’t have beautiful flowing water. It isn’t tuned to the precise degree that allows players to practically feel the fourteen pounds per square inch of atmospheric pressure that should surround them.
Instead, it has truth. Caballero sits you down and walks you through a battle between his childhood innocence and his father’s violence. He walks you through the psychological trauma that occurred as innocence and countless other experiences succumbed to attrition. And finally, he strips off the shroud of fantasy and exposes a truth of unprecedented rawness: sometimes you can’t overcome. Sometimes you have to let go.
And that’s more real than any other “realistic” game has dared to articulate.
Eight Steps Forward
Related readings from Bit Creature
Filed Under: Eight Steps Forward Feature Indie Life
About the Author:
James Hawkins is the founder of Bit Creature. He's a published poet, dabbling sportswriter, and former Senior Editor of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.
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